Google “xeroderma pigmentosum” and you will find no photos of pale young women who look like Bella Thorne in “Midnight Sun.” The condition, in which the body is unable to heal DNA damaged by exposure to UV rays, has side effects that might appear freakish to the average person, including an abundance of freckles, dry skin, cancerous lesions, and spider veins, but which convey just how serious XP is for those who suffer from it (only one in five makes it to his or her 20th birthday).
It could have simply been a marketing trick, but at advance screenings of “Midnight Sun,” they put a small box of tissues at everybody’s seat. Good thing too: The independently produced melodrama — a remake of a popular 2006 weepie from Japan, where the potentially fatal skin condition is six times more common — doesn’t jerk tears so much as coax them, like a shy cat from under a parked car, turning audiences into willing accomplices exploiting XP for the sake of cheap catharsis.
Considering the statistics, such a story serves some cultural value in Japan, where the problem affects one in 40,000 people. In the U.S., however, this tacky make-a-wish fantasy is merely the latest addition to that odd subgenre of terminal-teen romance — from “Love Story” to “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” — in which a case of puppy love between a pair of preternaturally beautiful young people is rudely interrupted by the Grim Reaper.
Thorne plays Katie, a red-haired, Disney-princess-like shut-in whose skin looks alternately lab-rat pink or gecko green depending on the weirdly unflattering indoor lighting — call it “the fault in our star’s makeup.” Tucked away behind thick UV-blocking windows nearly all her life, Katie has been homeschooled by her overprotective father (Rob Riggle), who encourages her self-taught interest in music, to the extent that he permits her to take her guitar down to the tracks and sing for strangers after dark, so long as she returns before curfew.
Are there any towns left in America with such a backlot-safe feel that a worrywart dad would allow a naive teenage girl with next to no experience interacting with strangers hang out at the local train station? And are there any sullen teenage boys who would skip out of a graduation party packed with popular kids in order to saunter by themselves, only to be smitten by a mystery girl’s disembodied voice?
Like a mid-century fairy tale, this is practically Frank Capra territory, if Capra had spent the 1950s making teenybopper segments for “The Mickey Mouse Club.” That sitcom-optimistic tone owes to director Scott Speer, a music-video veteran who made his feature debut with “Step Up Revolution,” and who is clearly more comfortable overseeing pop-song montages than scenes involving two characters getting to know each other.
Playing a sensitive jock named Charlie, Patrick Schwarzenegger boasts the Aryan good looks American audiences are conditioned to admire in homecoming kings, although he’ll need some more training to diversify his limited range of expressions (which alternate between blank-faced stoicism and that trademark Schwarzenegger grimace-smile that looks more charming on father Arnold). Still, Charlie is convincingly sensitive, and that goes a long way in a movie that hinges on his being dim enough not to suspect that his new available-only-after-dark girlfriend could die if exposed to the sun. (Then again, would you?)
If all of this sounds insufferable, rest assured that Speer and screenwriter Eric Kirsten attempt to humanize the two teenagers’ experience, empathizing with Katie — who keeps her condition a secret because she doesn’t want to be defined by her disease — while appealing to those nobody-understands-me-like-you feelings outsider teens crave from first love. With the sun as her enemy, Katie’s central conflict essentially becomes whether it’s possible to cram a meaningful romance into the limited time she has with Charlie (a theme that doesn’t necessarily require a terminal illness, as last year’s “Call Me by Your Name” demonstrated).
The trouble isn’t just that “Midnight Sun” cherry-picks the most poetic elements of a real-world disease to serve its transparently manipulative ends, but that it offers audiences such an unrealistic portrait of romance in the process. Coping with illness and grief are valid subjects for teenage audiences to confront, but “Midnight Sun” essentially fetishizes Katie’s condition, using it to imbue her signature anthem — a song called “Burn So Bright” — with unearned emotion. Those who do go to see it might want to keep a pack of tissues handy anytime the song plays on the radio.